30 Oct Eiteljorg People: Jason Allen, who worked behind the scenes to make exhibits happen, is leaving for NYC
By Rachel Drake, Eiteljorg marketing and communications intern
Jason Allen is known around the Eiteljorg as a highly organized museum project manager who brings dedication, focus and a sense of humor to his work. Those attributes have served him well as an Eiteljorg Museum professional, but he began honing them early in his career in a most unlikely way: when he was living alone in a lighthouse.
After graduating from Michigan State University, Jason was a young museum staffer at the Michigan History Center during the summer of 2014 when an unusual job opportunity came up: The center urgently needed someone to live and work for nine months in a 19th century lighthouse at Tawas Point State Park, located on the coast of northeast Michigan on a peninsula surrounded by Lake Huron. The previous lighthouse staffer had resigned and the center was desperate to find a replacement for the busy tourist season. Jason, who had been unofficially working as project manager for only a few months, stepped up to take the new challenge. Though he didn’t have to dwell in the tower and keep the beacon lit to signal ships offshore like the lighthouse-keepers of old, Jason did get to lead tours at the popular historic site, manage the gift shop and indulge curious visitors in not-so-historic ghost stories — since the lighthouse for all its rustic charm was not haunted.
Now far from the Great Lakes coastline, Jason has brought his organizational skills and willingness to take on interesting challenges to the Eiteljorg, where he has served for the past two years as the museum’s project manager and evaluator. In that job he has helped the team in shepherding several key exhibits and projects to completion, such as The Reel West. This was the first exhibit Jason was able to manage fully from beginning to end, so it was very rewarding for him to see everyone’s contributions culminate in the form of a more creative and interactive exhibit.
And soon, Jason will be packing his bags to pursue a new opportunity, working in New York City. He has accepted the position of exhibitions assistant project manager at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum where he will oversee that museum’s special rotating shows. Jason decided to relocate in order to be closer to his partner who already lives in New York City. As he and his partner were job-hunting in New York and figuring out how to be closer, Jason decided to pursue the 9/11 Memorial for a few reasons: The memorial communicates “a unique story that deals with a national trauma. Having been working with different (Native American) tribes for several years now, trauma and the resilience to trauma is a common theme, and one I would like to explore in a very different context,” he said. While Jason’s work at the 9/11 Memorial will be similar to his role at the Eiteljorg in terms of maintaining important details, his new job will focus more on managing external, third-party communications as opposed to internal, interdepartmental details.
Originally from Grand Ledge, Mich., Jason studied at Michigan State University, where the idea of a museum career came into focus. “In undergrad, I was doing secondary education. I got into the teaching program and was placed into a classroom as a student teacher,” Jason recalled. “I did that a couple times and hated it every time. I found it very restrictive . . . I realized I still wanted to do education, but in a more creative environment. I took a museums studies class and loved it.” He earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Michigan State, studying history with a museum studies specialization and then moving on to specialize in educational technology.
Working in the museum field appealed to Jason due to the higher level of creative freedom and the more informal approach to education and learning environments. “It is a freer exploration of what people want to learn, and how they want to learn. That really called to me,” Jason said. While working with education programing at the Michigan History Center, Jason became more involved with exhibitions from an educational standpoint. When the Michigan History Center needed a project manager for a new, major reinstallation process, Jason officially accepted the position after his return from the lighthouse at Tawas Point. This opened the door to the world of museum project management. He soon found he liked the new role and responsibilities of project manager, and worked at it for several years before moving to the Eiteljorg in January 2017.
Jason’s role at the Eiteljorg has involved two main responsibilities. He has overseen all exhibition development processes including scope, schedule, and budget. He has also developed methods for gathering the feedback of Eiteljorg visitors, including visitor evaluation surveys, so the museum can compile demographic information and measure quantitatively how visitors perceived exhibits and whether the museum and exhibit met their learning objectives.
“It is important to talk to our audience about what they like and dislike, because for so long museums acted as this voice of authority,” Jason said. “We choose the art; we choose what to say about it. Now the only thing is we talk to our audience at all the stages, to make sure exhibits are developing in a way they will like and enjoy.” This is important in order to engage the community, make sure it is represented fairly and likes what the museum is doing, he said.
Jason Allen addressed the crowd at the Market Morning Breakfast that kicked off the 26th annual Eiteljorg Indian Market and Festival, June 23, 2018. Jason developed evaluation surveys that help the Eiteljorg measure visitor feedback about events such as Indian Market.
At the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, Jason will face new challenges by working in a relatively new historic site that still carries a strong emotional impact for much of the population. “What’s fascinating is that the 9/11 Memorial is going through this shift where they have a lot of school groups that come in, and (these students) weren’t alive when (the 2001 attack) happened . . . . Pretty much anyone under 20 doesn’t remember 9/11,” he said. “What’s interesting is that even though it’s much more recent (trauma) than what we talk about at the Eiteljorg, there’s still this shift that seems to be happening — where as opposed to just being a place of memory or memorial, soon they’ll have to shift into also providing information about historical trauma as well.” The exhibits Jason will organize will help younger generations better understand the significance the events of 9/11 had on America, even though they weren’t around to know it firsthand and personally. This is similar, Jason says, to the Eiteljorg’s current work on creating more conversations as well as teaching about historical Native traumas.
James H. Nottage, who recently retired as the Eiteljorg’s vice president and chief curatorial officer, was Jason’s supervisor, and praised Jason’s work as project manager and evaluator. “Jason began his tenure with the museum in the midst of major projects that he tackled with energy and dedication. The Reel West and the reinstallation of the Western galleries are the most notable examples,” James said. “He brought insights and expertise in project management and evaluation, two critically important aspects of creating effective exhibitions.”
Jason is leaving the Eiteljorg excited for all the new opportunities the museum has to reach into the community and spark more conversations about Native peoples and their art, history and cultures. He said he will miss his fellow Eiteljorg employees the most. “We have a really close team here, and we work very well together.” Reflecting on the museum as a whole, he said, “at the end of the day, it’s art. It represents a deeper picture of someone’s experiences, but also at the end of the day its creative. I can definitely say the Eiteljorg is an institution with a good soul.”
Jason Allen, right, was one of the Eiteljorg Museum staffers attending the March 2 opening celebration for the The Reel West exhibit along with, from left, Hyacinth Rucker, digital communications manager, Ashley Robinson, exhibit specialist, and Johanna M. Blume, associate curator of Western art, history and culture.